Lucy Ellmann on why the heroine of her new novel makes the best case for feminism

Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann, is published by Bloomsbury Circus, priced �12.99. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann, is published by Bloomsbury Circus, priced �12.99. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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LUCY Ellman wanders into an Edinburgh cafe and assesses the set-up.

Two French chairs, a pot of tea wearing a knitted cosy, the sun throwing a geometric shaft of light across a round table, the smell of freshly baked baguettes in the air. It’s a pleasing scene. The kind that invites you to pull up a chair. Not so, however, for this author, who has been described as savage, heroic, hilarious, bonkers, macabre, misanthropic, fearless, bawdy, and a genius. Instead Ellman wrinkles her nose and in a soft American accent that somehow manages to be sweet and withering at the same time, asks if we can move. “It’s the sun,” she murmurs by way of explanation.

And so, in a dark corner of her choosing, we get talking. About Mimi, her extraordinary new novel which is, amongst many things, a love letter to New York, eggnog, Bette Davis, cats, quilts, Bach, matzo ball soup, La Bohème, public speaking, art, women, and, above all, “a wacko broad” called Mimi. We also talk about feminism, death, fathers, creative writing courses, Orkney, nudity, plastic surgery, and vulvas. Oh, and lists. Ellman has a thing for them, and if you haven’t already noticed it’s catching. Her protagonist in Mimi, an eventually lovable plastic surgeon who experiences a rude feminist awakening, is forever adding to his List of Melancholy (it contains such doleful delights as phonebooks/balloon animals/the “ready” bell on microwaves/Dick Cheney...)

“Lists are very subtle things,” she says slowly. “I first got into them with my novel, Man or Mango?. I discovered these horrific Nazi lists and though about the fact that lists are often very male. And potentially disgusting. There is this sense of reducing life to a list. You can use them for evil.” She laughs and shrugs. “And then I got addicted to them.”

And so to the list-maker herself. Ellman, who lives in Edinburgh with her husband, the American writer Todd McEwen, has a candyfloss cloud of blonde curls, bright red lips, and an ageless face. Like her books, which have won and been nominated for all sorts of prestigious prizes, she is a complete one-off. Halfway through the interview, to take an example, she implores me to write up our encounter as “a piece of fiction”, which, if you’re wondering, I’ve resisted. In person, she comes across as singular, shy, radical, offbeat, funny, and quietly but ferociously smart. On the page, she takes it further still: her prose is a breathless torrent of words, ideas, CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks, populated by the kinds of people – misshapen, middle-aged, mad – that you don’t meet often enough in novels.

“We live very verbally abbreviated lives,” she says. “When I write I try to say it all. Most of the time I’m clammed up. I hardly get a word in edgeways at a dinner party.” She smiles and her eyes narrow with mischief. “I made Mimi in this book bolder and more fun than I am, but I am pretty bold at home. I say whatever I want and it’s important that women do. Why are we keeping quiet? Why are we so respectful of men when they’re so disrespectful of us. I’ve had it!”

She says, looking pleased, that all her books are “very angry”. Yet this sells them short. They are also humane and oddly romantic, as well as painfully honest about the brutalities and absurdities of everyday life. To put it another way, a lot of people die. “I have killed many people in my books,” she admits. “But I think it’s really bad if an animal is killed. Then I throw the book away. It’s a sign of sadism. But people do die and why is it that only detective stories can acknowledge that? I don’t mean to be grotesque. I mean to be realistic.”

She and her husband recently returned from Canterbury where they spent three years teaching creative writing at the University of Kent. Reading Mimi, which features an American artist struggling in a Canterbury that’s basically a dismal, cruel, soulless hell-hole, I’m guessing she didn’t have the best time. I tell her I felt a little sorry for the place. “Don’t bother,” she says. “It’s a terrible place.” She didn’t enjoy teaching the subject (“it practically killed us”) and doesn’t care much for England either. “They are just so mean and nasty to each other compared to the Scots,” she says. “I know it’s a big generalisation but the very tone of the place seemed angry, all road rage and bitterness.”

Mimi, in spite of the Canterbury interlude, is the most positive novel she has written. “It’s not that I’m a happy person,” she says, looking worried. “Of course these nice people are doomed and bad things happen to them but I thought, how about if everyone survives this time? Well, most of them anyway.” We both laugh.

Ellmann spent her first 13 years in America, first in Connecticut, then Illinois. She is the middle child of Richard Ellmann, the prominent writer whose biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde remain definitive. Her mother was also a writer and critic. It sounds like a formidably intellectual childhood. “It may have been,” she says carefully. “I didn’t know what they were talking about most of the time.”

Did she feel different to the rest of the family? “Yes.” In what way? “I felt very stupid,” she says eventually. “My sister [to whom Mimi is dedicated] was very intelligent and dominating. I ran around after her, copying her for about 20 years before I finally thought, this isn’t really working. Then I broke away.”

When she was 13 her father moved the family to Oxford in order to research and take up a post at the university. Before they left her mother suffered a massive aneurysm which eventually left her paralysed. The family, and Ellmann in particular, was devastated by the move. “Now I’m glad that I’m essentially European and didn’t spend my whole life in America. I might have ended up a happy person!” She laughs and then starts to speak softly again. “But at the time it was very debilitating. Very bad, psychologically.”

She found it hard to talk to her father and was furious with him for uprooting the family. “He was essentially a very genial man but he did scare me. I became reserved and retreated into my world. I tried to rebel but you can’t really when you have a sick parent. My mother was in a worse shape than I ever recognised. She had all these physical problems but she was also very depressed. We never discussed it. And my father was depressed too. What a family!”

Both of Ellmann’s siblings became esteemed academics. She, too, felt she was “doomed” to become a scholar and after dropping out of art school, started a PhD. It was only when someone (who is still her editor today) suggested she try her hand at fiction that she thought of becoming a writer. It didn’t take her long to find her voice. Her first novel, Sweet Desserts, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Before it came out, her father died. Her mother died not long after. “She still found the time to complain that I killed her off in my novel,” laughs Ellmann, macabre as ever. “But I did it to save her from being blamed for major events in the book. I thought I was sparing her. I thought I was sparing all my family. Well, the ones who were alive didn’t like it much.”

Her father read part of an early draft, however, and was encouraging. She edited his biography of Wilde, which he dedicated to her. She still writes all her novels on his old typewriter, dragging it all the way to Orkney where she wrote part of Mimi. Did she feel closer to him towards the end of his life? “There wasn’t enough time,” she whispers. “I really regret that. I was still very scared of him though he wasn’t scary. I was scared of men in general. I found it hard to talk easily with him. Given another twenty years, I might have mastered it. ”

After her mother’s death Ellmann left London for the countryside. By now she had a daughter from a failed marriage and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She became a hermit for six years. “It worked,” she says with a wry smile. “I slept a lot, took care of my daughter, and avoided all social encounters as much as possible. It took years before I felt something lift. I had this terrible guilt for letting my mother die. I guess it’s irrational but that’s what I felt.”

Since then, she has found a little happiness. She met McEwen on a writer’s retreat and they have been married for 15 years. “It has taken me all that time to find my voice,” she says. “I had yelled and screamed before but I don’t think I had spoken to men and felt free to say what I want. Now I can raise theories about prehistoric utopias and vulva worship and actually be listened to!”

Mimi marks the first time Ellmann has explored feminism from a male perspective. “At first I assumed this man would just be some dastardly plastic surgeon,” she says. “But then I started to like him. The vigour of this book came from pretending to be male. Men can say what they want and get away with it. That was really liberating. And I wanted to get at men from the inside. To infiltrate. Every feminist novel these days seems to be about women who are free and powerful. Bullshit! I’m tired of it. And I’m sick of women doing all the work of feminism. It’s time for men to get in on this.”

This time round, the feminist call to arms is so explicit there is an actual manifesto at the end of the book, urging men to give all their money to women. “I felt we needed a simple solution,” Ellmann says. Is that her real aim? Does she actually want her books to change people’s minds? “Yes!” she announces gleefully. “But they never listen! This time I’ve really pounded it into them. If Mimi changes the world, then I’ll be satisfied.”

• Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann, is published by Bloomsbury Circus, priced £12.99